Labour is on a desperate mission to shake off the “party of spin” tag that threatens to hobble it, as the taint of sleaze haunted the Tories in the last years of their administration.
The Conservative Party has yet to fully recover from the revelations that conspired to topple it from power, despite various attempts to rebrand the party – the latest of which includes plans to snuff out the burning torch, a symbol crafted by Baroness Thatcher 20 years ago.
The pressure is now on for both Labour and the Conservatives to reinvent themselves and to repair the tarnished state of their brands in time for the next general election.
The nuts and bolts of the New Labour spin machine have become increasingly apparent to a cynical electorate, whose disenchantment has only been magnified by the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. So it came as no surprise that the Prime Minister’s Machiavellian director of communications, Alastair Campbell, decided to resign from his post midway through the inquiry. Campbell’s departure left Tony Blair looking isolated in Government, having lost Peter Mandelson – the other figure in the triumvirate that introduced New Labour’s particular brand of marketing- and communications-led politics – two years before.
Last week, Blair moved quickly to implement the preliminary findings of the Phillis Report, commissioned in the wake of spin doctor Jo Moore’s infamous e-mail on September 11, 2001, suggesting that it was “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”. In Campbell’s place, there are now three people, including one political appointee, David Hill, who will take the title of “Prime Minister’s director of communications” but will not enjoy the same sweeping powers accorded to Campbell. He will, however, oversee Labour’s advertising during the next election.
Marketing no longer sells?
Spin is a seemingly intractable problem for Labour, threatening to undermine all that the party does. Indeed, many now think that Labour’s big issue is the very marketing-led stance that enabled it to return to power after 18 years in opposition.
“The danger now is that all marketing and communication will be seen as spin,” points out Johnny Hornby, who worked on Labour’s last general election campaign at advertising agency TBWA/London before becoming managing director of Clemmow Hornby Inge, on whose board Peter Mandelson sits as a non-executive director. It is rumoured that Mandelson lies behind the new “end of spin” strategy. Hornby thinks a return to Government of his old friend Mandelson would be no bad thing, believing his skills would outweigh the fresh onslaught of headlines about spin that such a move would undoubtedly trigger.
While Campbell has departed, few believe that Labour’s new communications structure will mark the end of the era of marketing-led politics. “We are all about projection, it is all marketing,” says a Labour press officer.
Robert Bean, chairman of Banc, which handles advertising for the Liberal Democrats, says: “Everything that Mandelson and Campbell have put in place has become institutionalised.” This obsession with presentation and marketing has affected not only politics, but also everyday life: Bean points out that people have become accustomed to continual messages, and even feel the need to market themselves personally, as TV reality shows such as Fame Academy, Pop Idol and Big Brother illustrate.
Bean says that, while the Mandelson-Campbell approach was highly sophisticated in political terms, it was heavy-handed in its execution. He says: “The extent to which spin is known about, and the fact that Mandelson and Campbell are celebrities in their own right, suggests it has been crude.”
Their legacy has been to leave Labour in a double bind. “If the theatre of operations is largely presentational, and Labour is accused of over-presenting, where’s the way out?” asks Bean. Labour is now left in the contradictory position of having to spin its way out of spin.
This presents a formidable problem for how Labour presents itself. Andrew McGuinness, chief executive of Labour’s advertising agency, TBWA/London, says: “We need to continue to find ways of communicating effectively.”
Somebody has to spin
Even if New Labour’s infamous focus groups have given marketing techniques a bad name, the era of marketing-led politics is not at an end, says Peter Walton, chairman of brand consultancy The Value Engineers: “Even if marketing has become the story, it doesn’t mean that the parties still don’t have to do it.”
“Projection” is the term that the Labour Party uses internally to refer to marketing and communications. Eddie Morgan, the Labour Party’s assistant general secretary, is in charge of projection. He is, nevertheless, intensely irritated by talk of the subject. “I don’t think presentation is interesting,” he claims. “If we talk about presentation, whatever we say about communications, it will be immediately construed as spin.”
He is also keen to downplay the impact of Mandelson and Campbell on the style and techniques of contemporary politics. He says: “It’s utter bollocks, colossally overstated. There are a limited number of ways you can skin a cat in politics. There have been no sinister or scientific techniques – it simply didn’t happen.”
Marketing Society chief executive Hugh Burkitt recalls giving Mandelson advice on branding in 1985 – the latter was director of communications for Neil Kinnock at the time, and at the beginning of the project that culminated in the rebranding of the party as New Labour. Burkitt says Labour has noth
ing to be intrinsically ashamed of in its use of marketing. He says: “Good marketing is an essentially democratic process. Marketing is about going to consumers, finding out what they want and producing it for them. Shouldn’t that be what democracy is about too?”
But Burkitt accepts that a problem arises from politics’ appropriation of corporate marketing techniques such as focus groups: “conviction politicians” are left out in the cold, and the parties tend to congregate around the centre ground, leaving differentiation a real problem.
The lack of clear differences between the parties, taken together with a “first past the post” electoral system that limits the number of political parties with a realistic chance of power, results in consumer – or voter – choice being severely limited.
At least we know what Blair looks like
And when political differentiation is lost, the electorate resorts to other factors when making a choice. Recalling the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, Mark Wnek, co-chairman of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper Partners (the advertising agency for Labour renegade and Mayor of London Ken Livingstone) believes that Blair’s current woes have only served to increase his profile. “Look at the notoriety Blair has achieved in recent weeks. Have you seen anything about the Tories? A vibrant Iain Duncan Smith would have made himself half the story. The grim reality of today is that if you are a celebrity, people will vote for you.”
Unsurprisingly, Wnek is scathing about the positioning of the Conservatives’ leader: “‘Beware the quiet man’ – they must be dreaming,” he says.
It is ironic – or perhaps symptomatic of the Tories’ decline – that, just as Labour is moving away from having the single, omnipotent, spin master, the Conservatives are moving in the opposite direction. Paul Baverstock, the Conservative Party’s recently appointed director of strategic communications, has had his range of responsibilities increased, incurring criticism from within his own party that he is becoming another Campbell.
But, keen to avoid the trap into which Labour has fallen, Baverstock avoids the limelight. Tory strategy is to present the party’s leader and spokesmen as decent people, and to eschew those tactical moves which could see them labelled with the same “spin” tag as Labour.
Both Conservative and Labour accept that trust is an issue that has to be tackled, just as it does by, for instance, the financial services industry.
Words are only half the picture
Angus Porter, Abbey National’s recently appointed customer propositions director, and a former managing director of British Telecom, accepts some of the comparisons between politics and commerce. His advice to Labour is simply to deliver on its promises: “The best marketing is all about backing up promises.”
Porter says that the Conservatives need to make their brand credible and aspirational by moving away from their traditional demographic constituency. Garry Lace, UK chief executive of advertising agency Grey Worldwide agrees. He says the Conservatives are too closely associated with groups such as the hunting lobby and big business.
But Lace also believes the Conservatives should be massively tactical, sticking the knife into Labour at every opportunity – a path the Tories are understood not to want to go down. He believes a key issue for the Tories is finding a new tone of voice, so that they can appear to be “one of us, rather than the toffs they often seem”.
According to Charles Vallance, a partner at advertising agency VCCP, Labour’s current woes present the Conservatives with the opportunity to mould a completely fresh political vocabulary. He says: “The Tories should avoid all the conventions, jargon and rituals of politics. No negative copy, trading of insults or photo-calls next to billboards attacking the other party.”
Whether Labour manages to extricate itself from its entanglement in the process of politics or spin, and whether the Tories manage to create a credible political identity, remains to be seen. But, barring a Liberal Democratic miracle at the next election, the vagaries of both venerable brands, however poor their current status, will continue to affect us all for the foreseeable future. Whether we vote for them or not.